It hasn’t taken long for the familiar Arsenal medical woes to return. Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck are definitely out with long-term injuries, while Per Mertesacker, who missed Wednesday’s Champions League defeat away to Dinamo Zagreb following a minor car-crash, is a slight doubt.
Chelsea are without Thibaut Courtois with a knee problem and Pedro with a thigh injury, while Willian suffered a muscular problem in the win over Maccabi Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Radamel Falcao missed that game with a knock and is unlikely to recover in time for Saturday.
Jose Mourinho left out Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa for the Champions League tie. With Ruben Loftus-Cheek impressive in midfield and Baba Rahman looking solid at full-back, only Diego Costa, who ended up playing over an hour anyway after Willian’s injury, is certain to return.
Thumping a poor Maccabi 4-0 was welcome respite for Chelsea – as Mourinho pointed out, it would have been unimaginable to approach the Arsenal game after a defeat – but there can be no talk of revival until there has been a sustained upturn in performance against sides of far higher quality.
Chelsea still have the worst defensive record in the Premier League, they’ve taken just four points from five games and they haven’t yet convinced in a single game against anybody other than Maccabi. That said, if their poor form is down to a gentler than usual pre-season in an effort to prevent the fatigue that so afflicted them last season, now perhaps is when an upturn might be expected to begin.
Arsenal have begun the season in typically Arsenal style: some nice football mixed with a pervasive fragility.
It will be a long time before the stain of their 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge the season before last fades for Arsenal, who have lost five of their last six games at Stamford Bridge.
Last season’s 2-0 defeat wasn’t much less comprehensive, but the Community Shield offers hope for Arsenal: not only was their 1-0 win Wenger’s first victory against a Mourinho side in 14 attempts, but it also showed Arsenal’s new-found capacity to sit deep and absorb pressure, hitting opponents on the break. When Mourinho after that game accused Wenger of having abandoned his philosophy, it suggested his concern at the effectiveness of the alternate approach.
At the Emirates in each of the last two seasons, Chelsea have done similarly, holding Arsenal at arm’s length for 0-0 draws. The danger on Saturday is that Mourinho, determined to avoid defeat, goes into lockdown mode and Arsenal are complicit. In a sense, a 0-0 draw suits both teams.
THE IVANOVIC SOLUTION
Given how poor Ivanovic has appeared this season, slow on the turn and vulnerable against any winger with pace, Alexis Sanchez, who missed the Community Shield, must have been relishing playing against him. It seems likely, though, that Baba Rahman, having done well against Maccabi, will retain his place at left-back with Cesar Azpilicueta moving across to the right.
Defensively, it’s the only logical move, but what it also does is to shift the emphasis on Chelsea’s attacking capacity from full-back. Azpilicueta is a naturally defensive player who will tend to sit deep, so rather than Ivanovic surging forwards to support his right-winger, Baba Rahman will be the one pushing on. It may be that Eden Hazard’s improved performance against Maccabi was the result of having an attacking full-back to help create space for him.
COQUELIN v OSCAR
It says much for how much Francis Coquelin has developed that he was rested for the game in Zagreb on Wednesday. It’s safe to assume he will return on Saturday, though, to take up the key position at the back of Arsenal’s midfield, probably alongside Santi Cazorla.
The question is who he will be up against, but after Oscar’s display against Maccabi, it seems likely it will be the Brazilian, who has a spark Cesc Fabregas has been lacking this season and looks the more likely to bring other forwards into play. Its possible Fabregas will play there, though, with Oscar perhaps taking up Willian’s position on the right, if Matic returns to operate alongside Loftus-Cheek at the back of midfield.
There’s something very strange about seeing Chelsea as long as 2.30 to win at home, particularly against Arsenal, and the temptation is to rely on the evidence of Wednesday, assume that their form is returning and pile into that.
The likelihood is that Mourinho will look to kill the game and prevent any chance of Arsenal getting their passing going, in which case, despite Chelsea’s defensive woes so far, the 2.05 on under-2.5 goals in the game may be the best bet.